Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Part 2: Our epic journey to 3 colleges in 3 states in 9 days; First Stop--Benedictine College

St. Benedict's Abbey

Benedictine College, nestled on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, on the eastern edge of Kansas, in the farming community of Atchison, has been around for 150 years.

There are seven Benedictine institutions in Atchison, Benedictine College, St. Benedict's Abbey of approximately 53 Benedictine monks whose monastery is on the campus grounds, a monastery of approximately 150 Benedictine nuns who live at nearby Mount St. Scholastica, the parish church of St. Benedict's, a high school, an elementary school, and another parish church, Sacred Heart.

All this in a farming town of roughly 17,000.

I had visited Benedictine last year, about the same time of year, with my other daughter, Kateri. She had also participated in the Presidential Scholars competition. We were very impressed with the college, though she ultimately decided not to attend. In fact, it was at the urging of Kateri, that Lizzy decided to give it a try.

Lizzy and I began our visit to Atchison with a lovely afternoon walk around cornfields with an email friend that I had never met, but corresponded with since my visit last year. Maria and her family homeschool their kids and live outside of town in an old farmhouse. Her husband is on the faculty at BC, her son is a freshman, and she has taken classes there, so she has a unique perspective on BC and the Catholic life there. She confirmed that BC has embraced their Catholic identity much more strongly in the past 10 to 15 years, and as a result, their enrollment has nearly doubled.

We arrived a day early so Lizzy could sit in on some classes and take a tour of the campus. There were many students arriving that morning, so the admissions office had set up tables on the ground floor of the Student Union. They provided coffee, juices and pastries for the scholarship competitors and their families.

Lizzy's first-hand account follows:

A group of prospective Benedictiners and I followed a pair of sophomore guides across rain-washed concrete sidewalks, beneath towering hemlocks that shed olive-gray shadows on the ground. The Kansas mud yielded a faint stench of rotting worms and bettles, like an insect graveyard rent by floodwaters. I stayed on the path to spare my shoes.

Once we arrrived at Westerman, one of the science buildings, we navigated our way through unassuming staircases and several winding halls that looked like they had been punched out of the same sheet of white plastic.

At last we reached the Organic Chemistry II classroom, identifiable by three faint numbers on the door. The lecture room itself looked like a miniature theater: staggered seating encircling a small stage. (This was the first time I'd seen a school lecture hall; as a homeschooler, I'm accustomed to dining rooms.)

The chemistry professor, Dr. Aileen Beard, was delighted to share her knowledge with a roomful of bleary-eyed college students (many of whom were eating bagels, drinking Pepsi, or trying to finish their homework). Most of what she said escaped my faded knowledge of tenth grade science, though I was proud to be able to understand one word in twenty.

I recieved a bit of a jolt fifteen minutes into the class, when Dr. Beard mentioned that they wouldn't be meeting the following Tuesday (the feast of St.Scholastica, the patroness of Benedictine College), since there would be an all-school Mass during their alloted time.

"I know it's Friday," she added with a small laugh, "and you're all eager to go to Confession." The students laughed at the good-natured joke.

At the co-op I attend twice a week for science and calculus class, the teachers are too wary of separation of church and state to mention religion, except in passing. I guess a name-brand Catholic university doesn't have to worry about the ACLU suing them into financial oblivion.
(Sounds more like an English Lit major, eh?)

After Lizzy's morning class, we had a walking tour of the campus with student guides. They showed us the one of the oldest buildings on campus, Ferrell Hall, built in 1893. That doesn't make it the oldest building on campus. That honor falls to Bishop Fink Hall, which was built in 1878. Ferrell Hall certainly holds first place for being one of the most lovely (and mysterious) buildings on campus. It was orignally the monastery for the early monks, whose abbey church is the present day parish of St. Benedict's, which adjoins Ferrell Hall. Recent renovations, after more than 30 years of being empty, have completely transformed the ancient monastic dwelling into modern dormitory rooms, including some lofts with skylights. Atchison is known as one of the most haunted cities in America, and Ferrell Hall is chief among the so-called haunted abodes of Atchison.

Also on the tour, we saw the new Abbey church, (see pictures at the top and below),which was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The interior of the church is quite large, probably seating at least 1000. We attended an weekday evening Mass there and there were probably at least 200-300 people in attendance for a regular weekday Mass. (I suspect about 75-100 of those present were students and families there for the scholars weekend).

interior of St. Benedict's Abbey church

As you can see in the picture above, the Abbey church is rather sleek and modern. The acoustics are great, and they have a wonderful pipe organ, with pipes on all sides and both ends of the huge nave, giving you a total "surround sound" experience. The large hanging crucifix over the altar has the corpus with head bowed toward the monks' choir stalls, signifying their death with Christ.

While I'm on the subject of Mass, I noticed the students at all the colleges we attended were very reverent before, during and after Mass. Unlike my home parish, and all the surrounding parishes we attend, there was no grab-across-the-aisle-and-contort-to-connect-the -chain-hand-holding during the "Our Father," nor was there applause after the final hymn (despite the fact that the music was certainly worthy of applause, especially after Sunday Mass at the Abbey), nor was there the low din of chatter after Mass that accompanies all the post-Mass crowds at my local parishes. The students waited until they were in the vestibule of the church to gab with friends.

The tour also included a brief stop at the library and St. Benedicti's Hall, which houses the administrative staff and the Theatre Arts Department.

St. Benedict's Hall

We ended the tour at the Haverty Center, which is a great place for students to grab a quick snack or a cup of the college's own "Raven's Roast" coffee at the Monte Cassino Inn, or find a souvenir at the campus book store.

We had lunch in the student cafeteria and chatted with Maria's son, who is a freshman there. We also saw some other friends from Colorado who are students at BC, as well as my niece from Virginia, who was also attending the scholar's weekend.

Lizzy and her cousin from Virginia

In the afternoon we attended presentations on their mission, financial aid, residence life, study abroad and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students).

All of the presentations were impressive. We heard a lot over the weekend about the mission of Benedictine College. The mission of the college is to be a Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts, residential college, and to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship. I would agree with President Stephen Minnis when he says that Benedictine does all four of these things exceedingly well.

I really like the way their core curriculum is set up to give all students a solid, liberal arts education. For example all students, even science majors, must take two semesters of a foreign langauge. Likewise, all students must take a core of courses in Theology, Philosophy, English, History, Science and Physical Education.

Their study abroad programs are varied, but their gem, in my opinion, is their campus outside Florence, Italy. The students in this program live in a villa together and have a faculty member accompany them to teach them and travel with them.

FOCUS got its start at Benedictine, then quickly spread to the University of Northern Colorado and now thrive on 39 college campuses in 21 states. Today there are active FOCUS missionaries serving full-time at Benedictine and working with the Catholic campus ministry team to disciple students so they can be effective Catholic leaders and witnesses to Christ.

So what's not to like?

First, let me say that my complaints about Benedictine are minor and insignificant compared to the wonderfully supportive community, rigorous academic standards and vibrantly Catholic life that abounds on campus.

I have three concerns, or, I should say, there are three things that Catholic parents should be aware of when sending their child to Benedictine.

1. I would have liked to have heard more from the science departments about the integration of faith and reason. The biology department is rightfully proud of the their awards and achievements. One of their biology majors, Wangari Maathai, is a 2004 Nobel Laureate. (More on Wangari Maathai in #3). They have a high success rate of graduates being accepted into medical schools. But in today's technologically advanced society, where biology and ethics often collide, I would like to know they are at the cutting edge of not only the science, but also in preparing their graduates for making ethical decisions. When I asked the head of the biology department, Dr. Martin Simon, last year, to please discuss his evolution class, he dismissed my question without answering me, simply by stating that "Evolution is science. God is not. I don't bring God into the classroom." I avoided any confrontational questioning this year (not that I thought my question was confrontational last year, I simply asked him to "discuss" his course), and I just listened to him discuss the biology program at BC. It is impressive. And there are crucifixes in each classroom. But, I suspect Dr. Simon, who was named "Educator of the Year" in 2008, still doesn't bring "God into the classroom."

I know BC offers a top-notch education in Theology and Philosophy, and that all students must take classes in these areas, however, I think BC is doing a disservice to it's biology, biochemistry and other science majors by not helping them integrate the knowledge they acquire in these courses to better prepare them for the bio-medical fields many of them hope to enter.

2. Of lesser concern to me, but still something that bugs me, is the fact that the 150 or so sisters at Mount St. Scholastica, who are closely associated with the college, don't wear habits. (Okay, some of the ones in their 90's do, but they don't get out much). They ditched them sometime in the 60's, which coincidentally, seems to be the youngest age of many of their sisters.

Having worn a uniform 9 years, I understand that people expect something out of one who wears a uniform. If I got on an airplane and saw the pilot and crew were all wearing jeans and t-shirts, I'd be tempted to get off the plane before it took off. A uniformed crew tells me they are trained and know what they're doing. Once when I was flying home on leave, wearing my Navy blues, I was asked by a flight attendant to escort an elderly lady to her gate. I don't know if the flight attendant thought I was another flight attendant, or if she just thought I was more trustworthy than other 19 year-olds, but I felt proud to have been asked to escort the lady to her gate. If I had been wearing ordinary clothes, I seriously doubt I would have been asked to help. Even the servers at McDonald's wear uniforms!

3. Lastly, I have grown weary of hearing the BC tour guides cite with glowing terms the fact that Wangari Maathai is the only Nobel Laureate to graduate from a Catholic college in the United States. The truth is, she graduated from Mount St. Scholastica in the 60's, when orthodoxy to the faith wasn't highly valued. She went on to plant some 40 million trees in her native Kenya. She is highly educated and has received numerous awards and accolades, but her Catholic credentials are nil. She is first and foremost an environmental activist, but for some reason feels compelled to comment on relgion on her official website, "The Green Belt Movement", where she says that the Christian priesthood had in mind the destruction of her culture so that they could colonize and impose their own will on the native peoples. Is this the sort of rhetoric that a Catholic college should endorse? Obviously not, but the good folks at BC choose rather to ignore this part of Wangari Maathai's persona.

To summarize, the above three objections pale in comparison to the immense good that is Benedictine College.

We departed Atchison on Sunday after Mass at the Abbey church and drove to the airport in Kansas City, Missouri, to begin the next leg of our epic journey: DeSales.


The Bookworm said...

How nice that you were able to meet Maria. She stayed with us for a couple of days when she was visiting family in Europe a few years ago ... such a treat!

MacBeth Derham said...

We visited BC a few summers ago--very early in the morning, and there were no students around. It was lovely, and the folks there were very friendly. A year before that we had talked with an admissions rep who told us wonderful stories of the spiritual life at BC. Thanks for the virtual tour!